Essential Knowledge: Part VII

The great events of Western history almost always revolve around a revolution or a great war, where the nation, or even the West as a whole, comes out the other side as something radically different. The most obvious recent example is the first half of the 20th century, where Europe went in as a collection of empires and kingdoms and emerged as a collection of vassal states. Wars and revolutions are more often than not the result of a slow build up of pressure, like two tectonic plates bumping into one another.

The resulting earthquake reconfigured the map of Europe, not just geographically, but culturally and spiritually. The European culture of the 19th century was obliterated and replaced by a bland servitude culture. The impact of those two industrial wars was so immense that even today, Europe is afraid to stand up for itself in the face of a migrant onslaught. Anything that smacks of nationalism sends chills up the spines of Europe’s elite, as they remain in the shadow of the great wars of the last century.

One way to approach history is to treat the wars and revolutions like hubs from which radiate out spokes of history. Some spokes extend into the past, reaching back to antecedents that led up to the great event. The Great War, for example, was in no small part the result of the unification of Germany. Other spokes head of laterally, setting off events in other countries. The French Revolution, for example, had a great influence on the Bolsheviks, who studied the Jacobins and built on their tactics.

The first big upheaval on the list is the English Civil War. Most everyone knows about Oliver Cromwell, but the consequences of the war between the Roundheads and Cavaliers is still with us, particularly in America. One of the more popular recent books is from Peter Ackroyd, Rebellion: The History of England from James I to the Glorious Revolution. For those with short attention spans, this booklet is actually a pretty good summary. If you like podcasts, Mike Duncan’s Revolutions Podcast is a good choice.

The key figure is Oliver Cromwell. He is a remarkable guy in many ways, but for Americans he casts a particularly long shadow. That’s because his spiritual followers landed in New England. The reason the University of Virginia has a Cavalier as its mascot is because of the English Civil War. Oliver Cromwell and the Rule of the Puritans in England is a pretty good treatment. If you are really serious about knowing the mind of Cromwell, then you can read his collected letters and speeches.

That brings us to the American Revolutionary War. The challenge here is in finding books that are not myth making or nonsense histories. One way around this is to focus on the key people and read biographies of them. It’s hard to write historical figures into the modern narrative, because historians tend to be covetous of the figures they have studied and they are quick to criticize attempts to remake historical figures. Plus, seeing the event through the eyes of the participants adds another perspective.

James Madison and the Making of America is a great place to start. Ben Franklin’s autobiography is a must read. Of course, Thomas Paine’s writings are also a must read because they were instrumental in two great revolutions. John Adams is a giant from the period. Of course, Thomas Jefferson is another giant. An interesting book on two critical figures is Adopted Son: Washington, Lafayette, and the Friendship that Saved the Revolution. The serendipitous combination of Lafayette and Washington is a great story.

Interestingly, several of the key figures in the American Revolution played key roles in the next great upheaval in the West, the French Revolution. This is a huge topic with libraries full of books on it. For a straightforward chronology of events, a book from 25 years ago is a good choice. Citizens: A Chronicle of the French Revolution. It’s a little dry, but it covers the basics without a lot of gratuitous commentary. Another older book is The Oxford History of the French Revolution. There’s also a short version.

Again, reading about the people is a great way to get a feel for these important events and no one is more associated with the French Revolution than Maximilian Robespierre. Fatal Purity: Robespierre and the French Revolution is a good study of the guy who was arguably the West’s first fanatic. The second political fanatic would then be Jean Paul Marat. There are not a lot of good biographies of Marat. This is the only one I know of, but you can probably learn enough about him from general histories of the revolution.

Yes, Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France is a must read.

The next big event, particularly for Americans, is the American Civil War. Readers of this blog will know that the long shadow of this war is a regular topic on the Dissident Right. Like the American Revolution, the volume of books on the topic is endless. The thing to keep in mind is that history is written by the victors, so, many books on the subject are really about modern topics. The go to source therefore is Shelby Foote and his three volume series on the Civil War. It’s long, but it covers everything and it is easy to read.

The official history is that the Civil War was about slavery and the North was forced to go to war in order to end it, but history is written by the victors. The root cause was mostly the abolitionist movement. For a view of the abolitionists, from the Left, Midnight Rising: John Brown and the Raid That Sparked the Civil War is a good book written by and for the Progressive audience. Modern historians blame the never ending trouble with race on the failure of Reconstruction. Eric Foner’s Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution is probably the best modern book on the topic.

Finally, the last big event to cast a shadow on our age is the Russian Revolution. This is a funny one because in the fullness of time, the Bolshevik Revolution may fade away as a seminal event in Western history. Communism is dead and the Cold War is over, but understanding the Cold War, and its warping effect on the West, starts with knowing about the Soviets. A good book from twenty years ago is A People’s Tragedy: The Russian Revolution: 1891-1924. It’s 800 pages, but it covers everything.

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74 Comments on "Essential Knowledge: Part VII"

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james wilson
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Communism is dead? Leninism is dead, but the virus is alive and thriving in a far more clever form.

UKer
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A popular intellectual game is to imagine you have time travel (and a gun) and can go back in history to kill one person and thus alter the subsequent movement of events. It is easy to imagine too your choice is the one person who with your own hindsight was eventually to ruinso much for so many. My target would be the driver of Franz Ferdinand’s car in Sarajevo who inadvertently played his part in the prolonged war of 1914-1945, or perhaps better the person who failed to tell the driver the day’s itinerary had changed. Getting rid of either… Read more »
Dutch
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That’s true if one subscribes to the idea that great men define history. The other way to look at it is that history will find its way, and the names, dates, and places will fill in the gaps as we go. A current example that we are living through is whether Trump is changing the arc of our history, or whether he is the change agent in place for where we would be headed in any case. The argument and its two sides have been out there for millennia, so I do not expect any definitive answer to be forthcoming.
Ingot9455
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As noted alt-historian Kenneth Hite will say about all such time travel excursions, “Have you tried killing Woodrow Wilson?” It’s what the Time Police say when everything is snarled beyond recognition; it’s their version of saying, ‘Have you tried turning it off and on?”

Old Codger
Guest

Sheesh! Whole lotta hate for Wilson; all of it well-deserved!

Giovanni Dannato
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If an excuse is all that was required to set the tinder alight, they would have found one sooner or later. If a systemic vulnerability exists, just a matter of time until the perfect storm arises.

Brian-guy
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@UKer- Mohammed. Yeah I’d have to say Mohammed. That big white gorgeous towel would really stand out nicely from 9 paces to 900 yards. “relax, breathe easy, focus, exhale and squeeze gently……”

JakeBadlands
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Wilson and Roosevelt are way too late. You shoot Luther or Rousseau.

Worldly Wiseman
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SamlAdams
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Have always been a fan of Carlyle’s treatment of the French Revolution. Though history is usually written by victors, Grant’s Memoirs provide an unusually candid view into his thinking and if you read them along with Sherman’s, both provide some of the best insights into how the Civil War became the first “total” war. Have always been a fan of Ambrose Bierce and no reading of the Civil War would be complete without reading his “Tales of War” collection of short stories. His Ohio regiment often fought in the same battles as my g-g-grandfather’s Indiana regiment and comparing his accounts… Read more »
Drake
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Oliver Cromwell and the events after the English Civil War always fascinated me. They fought and eventually executed a tyrannical king – all good. Then Parliament wrestled with constitutions – first a Commonwealth then a Protectorate – even offered Cromwell the crown. A year after his death Parliament was negotiating the restoration of the crown. That always seemed plain crazy to me that after all that bloodshed, the English decided to return to a king (with greatly reduced authority) rather than forming a lasting republic. I know it’s because I viewing the events through the lens of my education and… Read more »
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I can’t speak for a hypothetical 17th century version of myself, but I don’t think I’d have much cared for Cromwell’s republic. They never figured out separation or really any other limitation of powers, centralized power, the original parliament that fought the war refused to dissolve itself for many years and seek reelection, at one point imposed military rule on the countryside, kept purging rival political/religious factions from parliament using troops, often led by officers from different army factions. Eventually deposed the Long Parliament and ‘elected’ new ones under a couple of new constitutions. And in the end the Army… Read more »
Drake
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I agree. On the other hand, installing the son of the King who was such an asshole they reluctantly cut off his head seems like at least as bad an option.

All this war and destruction – to get Charles II? Really?

Dr. Dre
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My English ancestor, a cousin of OC, was one of the regicides who signed the death warrant for Charles I. The Anglo-Catholic Church considers him a demi-saint, last I heard. The re-installed Stuart Kings Charles II and James II had to abjure that they ruled by Divine Right, and so on with the British monarchy down thru the years.The Russian Orthodox Church believes that Czar Nicholas II and his family, murdered by the Bolsheviks almost a century ago, were martyred, i.e. so they are considered to be saints, too, I guess. Their tombs in St. Petersburg are now crowded with… Read more »
Member

Somewhere in Canada there is at least one Anglican Church called “King Charles the Martyr”. I’ll bet there are a few such in the Anglican Communion.

SamlAdams
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Well, do have to hand it to those who left in the Great Migration to colonies…they watched and learned. “Cromwell” took great liberties with historical fact, but my favorite Harris line was his retort to Charles’ dismissal of democracy. “It is the ordinary people that would most readily lay down their lives in defense of your realm, it simply that being “ordinary” they would prefer to be asked rather than told”

Dutch
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Near as I can tell, most English subjects of the day were observers to what was going on, and not participants. I suspect that the people of the outlying areas had little knowledge of what was going on in the corridors of power, especially as they happened. Most likely what they did learn was well after the fact. The point is that most citizens or subjects are not actors, then or now, but strictly observers who are vulnerable to the effects of these actions, without having much, if any, say in them. To our Founding Fathers’ credit, they tried to… Read more »
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If you have to choose between Schama and Doyle on the French Revolution , choose Doyle. Problem is there are tons of cheap used Schamas out there in the used books stores. You’ll have to order Doyle. There are a lot of FR books out there. One that I consider to have great insight is Tocqueville: The Old Regime and the Revolution, usually The Ancien Regime and the Revolution. I still read a lot of the old Marxist authors on it because of their sense of timing of the events and the fact that they give insights as to why… Read more »
Dutch
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I always enjoyed Schama’s style in the presentation of history, but he has really gone ’round the bend in the way he interjects his opinions into the mix. His “France” tome has been kicking around the house for a while, precisely because it was everywhere at the library book sales for 50 cents. You get what you pay for, I guess.

Member

Schama’s History of Britain tv series some years ago was good, but even though modest he injected some contemporary political sensibilities into it.

OTOH, its was gorgeously produced and made excellent use of settings, light, colour and visual metaphors. On that latter, to really enjoy the show you have to enjoy things like the use of symbolic images- things like shots of eagles in flight from darkened castles when discussing the reign of Henry II. If you like that sort of thing, it’s the sort of thing you’ll like. I enjoyed it immensely.

Milestone D
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Mr. Z: What’s your take on Battle Cry of Freedom by James McPherson? I thought it very readable but it immediately jumped to mind when you mentioned history books as treatments of of modern topics.

SamlAdams
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MacPherson’s is one of the best single volume treatments out there, particularly in laying out context and looking at oft ignored aspects (e.g. the impact of communicable diseases on the troops (my own gg grandfather nearly died of measles in Kentucky in early 1862). I’d use it as a path to more specialized books on topics that interest you.

Old Codger
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Not just communicable diseases. Read “1491” and “1493” to learn of the impact that vector-borne diseases had upon all manner of historical events. Patriot malaria-carrying mosquitoes had as much to do with the British defeat at Yorktown, as the French fleet did!

Lulu
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On the Civil War, I found Goodheart’s 1861: The Civil War Awakening to be a very good read.

Mary Chesnut’s diary is also very enlightening form the Southern point of view. Her husband James Chesnut was a Senator from South Carolina before it seceded, became a general in the Confederate Army and personal aide to Jefferson Davis. Not your average “little wife”, she was an astute observer who has left an important record.

Member

Read anything by McCoullough, and “The First American”, a Franklin bio by HW Brands is outstanding. I couldn’t put it down.

Also, it’s not a book, but I think Ken Burns’ “Civil War” documentary is mandatory knowledge, not just essential. Foote’s books fill in the more granular details.

Member

Idea: a study of the French Revolution’s beginnings as a struggle between the bureaucracy/nobility/deep state and a new head of state who genuinely had the national interest at heart, but also had a strong personality combined with a relative lack of development of the art of political compromise.

Dutch
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Along with your idea goes a book by Adam Zamoyski titled “Phantom Terror”. Though it is mostly focused on the period after the French Revolution, it describes, in exhaustive detail, the methods and pervasiveness of government spying on their own people in Europe, during the first half of the 19th century. The sheer scope and pervasiveness of the monitoring has to be read to be believed. The FBI/CIA/NSA stuff is nothing new at all, only the methods have evolved. The web is so much more efficient.

james wilson
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The true nature of every revolutionary is only revealed in governance. He is a bureaucrat.

Old Codger
Guest

“…with a relative lack of development of the art of political compromise.”

I see what you are trying to do there, but it exposes your ignorance of the political process involved in developing real estate.

As I have posited before: TRUMP learned more about politics (and thus the art of political compromise) doing his first real estate development in NYC, than most politicians learn in a lifetime! It makes a Yuuuge difference for your learning curve when you have real skin in the game.

Member

Just an idea. I wasn’t trying to do anything. More proTrump than you I’d guess.
Transferrence along these lines is what happens when people write history.
In the past the take on the French Revolution has been that the king was necessarily part of the establishment because he was the head of the government. Because of Trump we now know that this assumption does not have to be true. If one were going to try to write something along these lines, one has to come up with a plausible scenario. That’s what I was doing.

Member
I think you should start with the Myth of the Roman Empire. The time when all of Europe, all the Known World was united in prosperity and peace, from Hadrian’s Wall in the Northwest to the banks of the Euphrates in the east. Of course that was total fiction, ignoring all the assorted barbarians beyond “The Civilized World” and all the recurrent civil struggles within. But that was the myth believed by Charlemagne/Karl der Grosse, when he tried tdo recreate it in 800 AD. And Europe has been trying to reestablish the One World Order ever since, in one form… Read more »
Member
You’re entirely right at the macro level- the establishment of the universal state that absorbs all others, at least regionally, usually eventually transmutes war into a conflict among factions for power over said state, or wars of rebellion and reunification, or other lines of civil or social war. Plus there still can be unpacified borders. But they aren’t without benefits. The Chinese, Romans, and Indians would be able to tell of it. The advent of Empire reduces the frequency of all the smaller wars among states now that those states are gone, eliminates the sporadic big ones, and the civil… Read more »
Member

You are quite right. Within limits size has an advantage, there is the Goldilocks Principle – neither too big nor too small, but just right.

Member

I agree with Saml Adams that Grant and Sherman’s memoirs are must reads.

While 1848 doesn’t reasonate with Americans, I recommend The Communist Manifesto to get a taste.

Lenin’s “de-classified” letters, published after the Soviet collapse, are important (I think Pipes was the editor).

Julian Corbett is important for understanding how the British really won the the world. And why they lost it.

A good biography of Bismarck… can’t remember which one I read.

I will try to think of some more when I get home and can look at my bookcase.

Dutch
Guest

I had a college professor who started his survey history course with the statement that the world can be divided into two eras, one before 1848, and the current (enlightened, in his opinion) one that started in 1848. I came, over time, to understand why he might think so. I found his outlook quite useful in my understanding of how the history professors would camouflage argument as exposition.

Member

Perhaps 1648-49

Member

There were a lot of butthurt European intellectuals after 1848. They spent the next 70 years marinating in their resentment, then screwed it all up after the Great War.

Member
I prefer Heinlein’s idea of long curves in the guiding ideas, philosophies, habits and fads of the human race as described by Potiphar Breen in “The year of the Jackpot”. I used to like his idea that peoples or nations sometimes descend into madness. He described the USA in the period of “The Crazy Years”. Then I realized that we humans are always crazy in some way and we are always in some form of crazy years, so there is nothing special about these days. I look forward to this weekends pronunciamentos from various LGBT++ nutjobs on AGW++. I recommend… Read more »
Member

Well, I simply have to do it. I know it’s crude but it’s necessary.

Fuck Lincoln
Fuck Reconstruction

There, I feel much better now. Oh and read; The Real Lincoln by Thomas DiLorenzo

Member

A little crude, but OK by me.

We must look very, very carefully at the historical figures we were taught to adulate in our schools, in our youth. The schools were already seriously socialist institutions enmoled by loQ fellow traveling losers.

The very fact that I was taught that Lincoln was a bloody saint makes me suspicious, so I’ll have a look at the DiLorenzo book.

Member
Re: “The impact of those two industrial wars was so immense that even today, Europe is afraid to stand up for itself in the face of a migrant onslaught. Anything that smacks of nationalism sends chills up the spines of Europe’s elite, as they remain in the shadow of the great wars of the last century.” You are only telling half the story. Many of Europe elites are complicit in the de facto invasion now underway. Angela Merkel comes to mind and there are others as well – especially at the European Union. The history of this betrayal is both… Read more »
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I’ve seen a few historians say that the French Revolution was the beginning of nationalism. RR Palmer wrote a couple of books on the revolutions in America and France as part of a great change in thinking and culture in what he called Atlantic civilization. When I look in the indexes of the two books I have written by him ( The Age of Democratic Revolution, and The World of the French Revolution) the word “nationalism” doesn’t even appear. I’m wondering if the idea was so taboo after the second world war that authors may have been afraid to use… Read more »
LetsPlay
Member

I would classify that vintage as “vinegar” myself.

Member

Anyone who calls out the villainous Count deserves an upvote.

I’d be willing to support a united Europe or a Western empire, just not any kind of empire or unity these people would build. I’d need to see the source code before voting in favour.

LetsPlay
Member
So much history to learn from. Is it only Americans who widely use the phrase by Santana about “Those refusing to learn from history being doomed to repeat it?” Not that we are so great either given our record of politicians getting us into wars and such without regard to past consequences and costs, but there seems to be a much larger disparity (at least from my perspective) of people in Europe not applying lessons from history, or being afraid to confront such. Any comments from our well read and traveled members of this esteemed crowd? Thanks again Zman for… Read more »
Member
I think you might be right on that first point. Obviously I can’t preclude there being examples, but I don’t think I have ever seen many, or any, references to Santayana in European writings. If he’s being used, I haven’t been seeing it these many years so perhaps he is just less common. I have found him cited almost exclusively by American, and a few British, conservatives. Sometimes liberals but he has become a more-favoured-by-the right kind of guy. The old National Review writers were big citers of his aphorism. Probably the current stable could too, but they’re all less… Read more »
LetsPlay
Member
Thanks Random_Observer for the feedback. And thanks for noting my misspelling of Santayana! My goof! I was always a skeptic of the EU concept and still am. It is an idea still in it’s infancy and it is having pains and should be in an neo-natal ICU. I never gave it much credence because of the sheer division between all the peoples, and the long and sordid histories of conquest, death and destruction between them all. Add to that mix the rise and fall of the various “empires” be they Dutch, Spanish, French, British, Prussian, whatever, and you have a… Read more »
Dutch
Guest
My take on the Americans vs. the Europeans is that the U.S. pursued a specific identity in its educational and cultural institutions for a long period of time, between the end of the Civil War and the 1960s. The Frontier mentality, the pride in its political system and its people, the architecture, the ships, trains, trucks and cars, the big cities and the rural farming ideal. The whole cultural package was allowed to blossom and evolve over the decades. Perhaps as a lesson from the Civil War, for the culture either to get its act together, or to fade away.… Read more »
cruithni
Guest

Once again, great post. I’ve reserved the only two books you recommended that my library has. I’ve also shamelessly posted this on my blog. Also going to post a link on gab.ai.

Member
Two more titles: Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds. Many people have their one book they go constantly go back to, whether that be the Bible, Sun Tzu, The Prince, Thucydides, etc. This is mine. People are crazy. They are even crazier in large groups. This book is also critical to understanding how modern financial markets developed. The other is titled The Land of Prester John and is an account of the Portuguese interventions in Ethiopia in the 1500’s. It is in the public domain and available in several formats on the webz. A summary: A nation at… Read more »
Sam J.
Guest

There’s another really good source on the History of the West but it’s not a book. All this talk about Revolution reminded me of it. It’s a series documentary called “Industrial Revelations” by the BBC. It really ties together how the Industrial Revolution fed itself. One technology feeding another and another. Each accelerating each other at the same time. It’s on YouTube. I there’s 4 main shows and one I believe was added later. They’re not too long and quite entertaining I don’t think anyone would regret the time watching them. The first below.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xFQ-f1Ax_Pg

Member

The best way to understand the South and Southerners before and during the The War Between the States is the biography of Robert E. Lee written by Douglas Southall Freeman. It won the 1936 Pulitzer Prize and is still considered one of the greatest American biographies of all time… http://penelope.uchicago.edu/Thayer/e/gazetteer/people/robert_e_lee/frerel/home.html

Lorenzo
Guest

Zman,
I remember you started this series by suggesting a basic familiarity with numbers and statistics. How about adding some suggested readings in math and science?

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